Despairing Radicals

Blair Worden

  • Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet by Katherine Duncan-Jones
    Hamish Hamilton, 350 pp, £20.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 241 12650 9
  • Algernon Sidney and the Restoration Crisis by Jonathan Scott
    Cambridge, 406 pp, £40.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 521 35291 6
  • Algernon Sidney and the Republican Heritage by Alan Craig Houston
    Princeton, 335 pp, £22.50, November 1991, ISBN 0 691 07860 2
  • Milton’s ‘History of Britain’: Republican Historiography in the English Revolution by Nicholas von Maltzahn
    Oxford, 244 pp, £32.50, November 1991, ISBN 0 19 812897 5

In the gentle countryside to the west of Maidstone in Kent lies Penshurst House, the home of the Sidney family since the middle of the 16th century. The most famous of the Sidneys, Sir Philip, included an affectionate account of Penshurst in his Arcadia, where it is thinly disguised as the house of Kalendar. A generation later Ben Jonson’s poem ‘To Penshurst’ celebrated the house as a landmark of antique virtue and antique hospitality, and contrasted it with the new and vulgar ‘prodigy houses’, such as Hatfield and Audley End, that were ‘built to envious show’ amidst the riot of competitive expenditure in the reign of James I. The Sidneys never had the money to spoil their inheritance, which survives as a glorious muddle of a house, centred on an enchanting Medieval hall and sprawling out into its Renaissance and later additions.

Jonson’s poem makes virtues of the family’s necessities. Though the Sidneys thought of their ancestors as grand Medieval landlords, a conceit reinforced by a fake family tree concocted for Philip’s father, they acquired substance only as members of the new office-holding and courtly nobility that grew up under Henry VIII and Edward VI. The standard of living to which they then grew accustomed became a heavy burden under Elizabeth, whose favours to the family were intermittent and grudging. From the late 16th century to the late 17th – from the time of Sir Philip Sidney to that of his great-nephew the republican Algernon Sidney – there runs a current of failure and indebtedness and bitterness.

The current has been obscured by mythology. Legends have spread luxuriantly around the family’s history, and particularly around those failed politicians, Philip and Algernon. The biographies by Katherine Duncan-Jones and Jonathan Scott are explicitly concerned to get behind the legends. Philip has been mythologised as the model Renaissance and Protestant courtier, whose courage and heroism led to a tragic early death at the battle of Zutphen in 1586. Algernon has been immortalised as a martyr for the principles sanctified by the Revolution of 1688, five years after his execution for treason. The deaths of both men, which created the legends, achieved far more in politics than their lives had done.’ Of course, both men were writers as well as politicians. Philip’s principal legacy is a literary one. Algernon’s Discourses concerning Government would become a textbook of revolutionary principles, particularly in 18th-century America. Yet for both men writing seems to have been a substitute for politics, the product of political frustration and exclusion. Their writings were published only after their deaths, the principal ones left uncompleted.

Until 1581, when the Earl of Leicester, Philip’s uncle and the Queen’s favourite, produced a son, Philip was likely to inherit not merely the Earl’s estate but his political empire. That expectation, as much as Philip’s own gifts, explains the high hopes held of him not only in England but among the Protestant nobility of the Continent, who longed to place him as their ally and spokesman on Elizabeth’s Council. His links with foreign Protestants and with their subversive political theories, and the hints of his willingness to put international loyalties before national ones, help to explain the Queen’s suspicion of him. As his friend Fulke Greville lamented, Philip ‘never was magistrate, nor possessed of any very fit stage for eminence to act upon’. For ‘want of clear vent’ his ‘extraordinary greatness lay concealed’. When the Queen did grant him political commissions it was generally to serve causes to which he was unsympathetic. Even his knighthood was granted for reasons of protocol, not of reward. When at last he was allowed to fight for the Protestant cause in the Netherlands, he botched his chance. The expedition was already in disarray when, on a misty September morning, he was mortally wounded in a pointless skirmish with Spanish troops.

Katherine Duncan-Jones’s Sir Philip Sidney: Courtier Poet is the first major biography of its subject since 1915. Rarely is a scholarly book so spirited, or a spirited book so scholarly. Duncan-Jones’s learning, always profound and never advertised, is communicated with elegance and lightness of touch. She aims ‘not to debunk’ Sidney but to ‘summon him to life, spots and all’. Like so many of his family – not least Algernon – Philip had a querulous, at times violent character. He could also be a prig and a snob. And he could be deeply devious, a characteristic ruefully observed by a victim of it who remarked that Sidney had been bred up ‘at a bad school’, the school of the unscrupulous Leicester. On the credit side are his undoubted charm and affability and the breadth and discernment of his artistic and literary patronage. There is also a bottomless generosity, although here Duncan-Jones seems less clear-eyed than usual. He was indeed wonderfully generous, but with whose money? His mentor Hubert Languet apparently ate into his lifesavings to assist Philip’s gift-giving. On his deathbed Philip willed away endless possessions, and left Sir Francis Walsingham, his father-in-law and executor, to sink beneath the burden of Philip’s debts.

His personal magnetism, doubtless strengthened by the lure of his hand-outs, would be celebrated for other reasons after his death, when he was deified by the martyrologists of international Protestantism. Yet when every allowance for mythology has been made, there remains a charisma which even the most perceptive biographer cannot hope quite to recreate. We can glimpse it in the tributes to Sidney by the great historian William Camden, who had studied with him at Christ Church, Oxford. Camden was no friend to international Protestantism. He despised Leicester. As a rule, he was ‘sparing’ in his ‘commendations’, as he said historians ought to be. Only heartfelt admiration can explain his reverence for Philip’s ‘great virtue, excellent wit, most exquisite learning, and sweet conditions’. When we read Camden we can sense why an anonymous diarist should have noted of Sidney’s death that ‘the very hope of our age seemeth to be utterly extinguished in him.’

Duncan-Jones favours psychological explanations of Sidney’s conduct and writings. She traces a series of correspondences between his life and his art, though she never belittles the ‘transforming alchemy’ that separates the two. In the composition of the Arcadia she discerns an escape from restraints and a release from pressures. In the Wiltshire countryside where most of the work was written Sidney freed himself from the succession of Polonius-figures who had kept watch over his early manhood, and from the artificiality and the disappointments of life at Court. This is a fertile approach, but one stronger on Sidney’s private than on his public world, and more authoritative on his character than on his beliefs. Duncan-Jones maintains, fairly, that while the political ideas which critics locate in the Arcadia are ‘deeply embedded in the plot’, they ‘are not its main source of narrative energy’. Even so, the ideas have an urgency explicable only in terms of the grim religious wars on the Continent, which troubled Sidney’s imagination even in his rural retreat.

Take the dark and enigmatic ‘Ister Bank’ poem in Book Three of the Arcadia, which exclaims against tyranny and perhaps even against the monarchical system under which Sidney lived. Sidney tells us that he learned the ‘lesson’ of the poem from Hubert Languet, the orchestrator of international Calvinism and a leading expositor of its revolutionary political ideas. Similar ideas were expressed by the Scottish poet and historian George Buchanan, whom a number of scholars believe to have been an influence on Sidney’s thinking. Buchanan makes no appearance in Duncan-Jones’s book. Languet she thinks of as one of the Polonius-figures, from whose influence the composition of the Arcadia marks a break. But while Sidney may indeed have wearied of Languet’s tutelage, a suggestion tellingly made, the debt to his ideas persisted.

What interests Duncan-Jones about ‘Ister Bank’ is not its politics but a more straightforward feature which other critics have, it is true, neglected: its horror at the slaughter of animals. Where most critics dwell on the impact on Sidney’s political thinking of the Massacre of St Bartholomew of 1572, which he witnessed in Paris, Duncan-Jones is more drawn to an earlier episode in Paris two months earlier. The proclivities of King Charles IX were gratified at a great feast marked by ‘an exceptionally vile pièce de resistance in which a bag full of live cats and a fox was suspended thirty feet up over a huge bonfire, until the flames pulled the screaming mass down’. To that episode, in a vivid passage, she traces the line about the cruel deaths of the animals in ‘Ister Bank’: ‘A plaint of guiltless hurt doth pierce the sky.’

Sidney’s religious beliefs interest Duncan-Jones more than his political ones. They nonetheless remain elusive. Her principal contribution is to emphasise his contacts and friendships with Roman Catholics, which appear to contradict the conventional picture of zealous Protestantism. Much is made of his ties with Edmund Campion, who hoped for Sidney’s conversion. I suspect that Sidney followed Leicester’s example and sought a power base across the religious boundaries even as he backed the party of forward Protestantism. Both in his life and in his art Duncan-Jones detects a growing religious intensity in the final years of Sidney’s life. When he went to the Netherlands the intensity acquired an apocalyptic strain, which seems to sit oddly beside his doctrinally liberal Platonism. How little we sometimes understand the theological equipment of the political thinkers of Early Modern England. The same puzzling combination would appear a century later, with so many of Philip’s characteristics, in his great-nephew Algernon.

Algernon Sidney owes both the fame and the distortion of his character to the triumph of the Whig cause in 1688 and to the subsequent entrenchment of the Whig oligarchy. When he was executed five years earlier for his alleged complicity in the Rye House Plot, the Whig cause seemed in ruins, broken by the upsurge of feeling against the Parliamentary extremism of 1678-81 and by the Tory revenge for it. In his last years he had developed a revolutionary political philosophy in many respects similar to the Protestant resistance theories which had influenced Sir Philip, and which insisted on the duty of the citizen to overthrow tyranny. After 1688, Sidney’s radicalism, like that of his contemporaries John Milton and John Locke, was posthumously emasculated. Though his arguments were used to criticise Whig practices, their basic function was to defend Whig principles which 1688 had diluted and made respectable. Sidney and his allies had regarded England’s deliverer of 1688, William III, not as a prospective liberator of Englishmen but as the tyrannical destroyer of Dutch republicanism.

Algernon’s reputation, which peaked in the 18th century, plummeted in the 19th. The Whig plaster saint became an absurdity, revered only by crank republicans. Until a few years ago no scholar took him seriously. Now he is taken very seriously. The search for the man behind the myth has produced a rush of publications. Jonathan Scott has compiled a biography of Algernon in two volumes, of which Algernon Sidney and the Restoration Crisis is the second. Alan Craig Houston devotes a volume to his political thought.

Scott, too, is concerned with Algernon’s political thought, but is more interested than Houston in the relationship of ideas to events. His biography has some of the qualities of its hero’s writings. It is long, vigorously argued, and written with a compelling eloquence that can veer into wildness. A work of bold ambition, which seeks to reinterpret not only Sidney but the whole political context in which he operated, it is open to many objections. Yet the overall achievement is striking and at times formidable. It will breathe much-needed life into the study of the Restoration period, and particularly of the crisis of Charles II’s reign, the years 1677 to 1683, which the second volume covers.

The most challenging and most contentious section of the book is the opening one, which aims a broadside at the ‘traditional historiography’ of those years. The phrase is inexact. Though Scott promises to challenge an entire historical tradition dating back to 1688, ‘traditional historiography’ is soon narrowed down to a short book by J.R. Jones, The First Whigs, published in 1961. Jones’s principal offences prove to be two. First, he adopted the misleading term ‘the exclusion crisis’ to describe the Parliamentary battles of 1679-81. Secondly, he represented the Earl of Shaftesbury as the leader of the Whig party. In Scott’s judgment there was no Whig party to lead, and Shaftesbury’s importance has anyway been greatly exaggerated. The men who mattered at the crisis of Charles II’s reign were friends of Sidney, who thus moves from the periphery of events to (in a favourite phrase of Scott’s) their ‘very heart’.

Like his hero, Scott is never one to understate his case. He has some powerful points about ‘exclusion’, the term used then and now to describe the bid to debar Charles’s Roman Catholic heir and brother, the future James II, from the succession. The succession question, he argues, occupied little attention, in Parliament or out of it. Charles’s leading opponents were concerned with ‘this reign, not the next’ Their targets were the ‘Popery and arbitrary government’ of which they had been voicing fears at least since 1675, and which had indeed been the nightmare of the Protestant gentry for most of the 17th century. The issue of exclusion mattered only briefly, and only when it reinforced an opposition programme that was already formed.

That the exclusion issue grew out of wider fears is not news. Without the neuroses released by the Popish Plot of 1678 there need have been no constitutional crisis in 1679-81; and without a long tradition of virulent anti-Popery there would have been no Popish Plot. There are three great constitutional crises in 17th-century England: those of 1640-2, 1679-81 and 1688-9. The first and the third led to revolution. Though the second did not it might well have done, and its issues were no less profound or dangerous. As Hugh Trevor-Roper insists in one of the essays in his recent volume From Counter-Reformation to Glorious Revolution,[*] a fundamental continuity of anxiety and of purpose runs through the successive generations of the 17th-century ruling class.

Yet amidst the pronounced similarities between the three crises there were differences too. The cry, voiced so often at the crisis of Charles II’s reign, that ‘Forty-One is come again’ shows that contemporaries interpreted the bewildering events around them in terms of the troubles of the previous generation. It does not prove that the two experiences were identical. The constant 17th-century chant against Popery echoed against a developing intellectual background, where a millenarian and Calvinist theology was conspicuous in the Puritan Revolution but in retreat after it. Scott goes back further than Trevor-Roper, to the later 16th century, and sees Algernon’s ‘European background’, formed by reading and travel and exile, as the equivalent to Sir Philip Sidney’s Continental perspective. Both men urged their country to commit itself to the European resistance to the Counter-Reformation.

The international dimension of later 17th-century English politics is certainly a neglected topic, but it needs firmer handling than Scott gives it. One way of exploring it would be to trace the influence of the international Huguenot network, a theme of Trevor-Roper’s book. Sidney himself had Huguenot connections, but Scott cannot make much of them. And if so much weight is to be placed on the link between ‘Popery’ and ‘arbitrary government’, we need a clearer explanation of the willingness of men who linked them to befriend Catholic powers and to fight Protestant ones. Just as, in Sir Philip Sidney’s time, Protestants feared extinction from a Catholic superpower, Philip II’s Spain, so Algernon’s generation was confronted by the next Catholic superpower, Louis XIV’s France. Yet at the crisis of Charles’s reign Algernon sought French support against the ‘arbitrary’, but Protestant, House of Orange.

Scott undoubtedly forces us to think afresh about the place of the succession question. Yet he may underestimate the extent to which, albeit for a brief period, it cystallised the fundamental constitutional issue of the 17th century. Did the power of kings come from above, by divine right, or from below, by the consent of the people? If the first, then the hereditary succession was sacred. But if the second, then the people’s representatives in Parliament might claim the right to choose a successor and to define or limit his powers. In the way of 17th-century debate, the issue was not always presented in so stark a form in Parliament. But it presented itself starkly enough to the major political thinkers – Sidney, Locke, Filmer – whose work was written or published during the crisis. Scott is right to insist that these writers were at least as much concerned with the present as with the future. But does he do justice to Sidney’s conviction, stated during his blow-by-blow reply to Filmer’s Patriarcha, that the publication of that work in 1680 was intended ‘as an introduction of a popish successor’?

The Earl of Shaftesbury, thinks Scott, was ‘eclipsed’ by his imprudent pursuit of the policy of exclusion, which took him and his followers down a political blind alley. The men who mattered were Sidney’s nephews Halifax and Sunderland in the Lords, and a group of radicals in the Commons who unlike Sidney had won election to the House and whose programme was close to his. Some of Scott’s evidence is literary, taken from contemporary poems. He does not mention the political poem which most impressed contemporaries, Dryden’s ‘Absalom and Achitophel’, which represents the crisis as a confrontation between Shaftesbury and the King. The poem never alludes to Sidney. Only one of his allies in the Commons, the Attorney-General Sir William Jones, is given even a walk-on part.

I suspect that, not for the only time, Scott has pressed a valuable insight too hard. His account, by exposing the simplicities of earlier versions, has opened the way for a more sophisticated understanding of the crisis. Yet his interpetation has its own simplicities. It also creates some puzzles. How were Sidney’s allies in the Commons, a miscellaneous group with miscellaneous pasts, able to make common cause and build a political party? Alas, Scott’s grasp of the materials for Parliamentary history is not strong. Here as elsewhere a book which draws on extensive and enterprising scholarship is from time to time weakened by hasty documentation or extravagant reasoning.

Houston’s is a less ambitious work, but an assured and authoritative one. Though Scott knows his political science and Houston his history, Scott writes as a historian and Houston as a political scientist. Sidney’s ideas matter to Houston because of their relevance to the present. An American, he joins the debate about the origins and development of the American republican tradition. With a growing band of writers he challenges the assumptions, which have found their most celebrated expression in the writings of J.G.A. Pocock, that ‘the defining characteristic of republicanism is a Classical theory of virtue, and that the republican language of virtue is distinct from and in tension with the liberal logic of rights and interests.’ Modern writers have adopted Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between ‘positive’ liberty, which has to do with civic virtue and with self-fulfilment through citizenship, and ‘negative’ liberty, which has to do with the individual’s right to be left alone. Houston sees no gap or tension between the two concepts in Sidney’s writings. To Sidney, ‘individual freedom and the effective exercise of political rights were inseparable.’

Pocock has never shown much interest in Sidney. To Houston, ‘Sidney represents the essence of republicanism in England and America’. At the centre of the book is a subtle and judicious account of Sidney’s understanding of liberty and of the ways in which 18th-century Americans responded to it. In one respect, though, I think Houston is wrong – and Scott right. Houston plays down the influence on Sidney of Machiavelli, the key figure in Pocock’s account of modern republicanism. There are ‘only a handful’ of references to Machiavelli in the whole of Sidney’s writings. But Sidney often fails to name writers to whom he seems to be indebted. Houston himself makes much – arguably too much – of a passage in Sidney’s Discourses which suggests the influence of his fellow republican James Harrington, whom Sidney never names.

Sidney’s Discourses is indeed a synthesis of various components of republican thought, but a synthesis in which Machiavelli’s ideas played a larger part than Houston allows. Houston seems to me to make a mistake which I have made myself, but which Scott avoids. Sidney’s aristocratic hauteur obscures the depth of his commitment to the Machiavellian ideal of ‘popular government’. Sidney wanted ‘popular government’ because, as Machiavelli had argued, it was the best form of government for making war. Success abroad could be sustained only by freedom at home. Only governments in which the people participated could afford to arm them. Republics thrived when citizens ‘fought for themselves’, an experience which ‘makes men generous and industrious and fills their hearts with love to their country’. These are classically Machiavellian claims.

One writer whom Sidney never mentions is Milton. Yet of all Sidney’s contemporary republicans it is to Milton that he seems closest. Both men profess a politics of virtue which combines a liberal Puritanism with Machiavellian republicanism. Both men think of liberty as the handmaid of ‘frugality’, of ‘industry’, ‘sobriety’, ‘temperance’, ‘honest poverty’, and equate tyranny with ‘luxury’, ‘effeminacy’, ‘licentiousness’. With Milton, Sidney knows – in his own words – ‘how strong a union there is between idolatry and tyranny’. Milton’s perception in ‘Samson Agonistes’, at once Puritan and Machiavellian, that nations ‘grow corrupt’ when they prefer ‘bondage with ease to strenuous liberty’ is shared by Sidney. With Milton, Sidney sees no hope of civil liberty without religious liberty, and with Milton he demands the separation of church from state. With Milton he grasps what writers on Milton call ‘the paradox of the fortunate fall’, for it is crucial to both men that fallen man, however much he has lost, has been granted the choice of true liberty and is capable of what Sidney calls ‘a civil and happy life’.

If Scott and Houston enlarge our understanding of Sidney’s political thought, Nicholas von Maltzahn does the same for Milton’s. Like other 17th-century figures, Milton bemoaned the lack of a proper ‘general history’ of his country. Like other writers who attempted one, he was soon bogged down in the early history of England. He never got beyond Saxon times. The History is, concedes von Maltzahn, one of Milton’s ‘least cherished performances’. Yet for the student of Milton’s thought it can be one of the most instructive.

Milton had a strong regard for his own omniscience. Besides his long History he wrote substantial treatises on theology, grammar and logic – though not one on political theory, for the forms of constitutions always interested him less than their capacity to promote virtue. Von Maltzahn shows the seriousness of purpose behind the History. Like writers earlier in the century – Ben Jonson, Samuel Daniel, Fulke Greville – Milton saw history and poetry as alternative and complementary means of exploring the gravest issues of public life.

Von Maltzahn’s measured and penetrating scholarship presents the writing of the History as a meditative exercise in national self-instruction, in which Milton, through Humanist techniques of source criticism, stripped away the comforting myths about England’s past and so came to terms with her historic deficiencies. Written mainly (as von Maltzahn believes) in the wake of the regicide, Milton’s History acknowledges his countrymen’s ‘unfitness’ for the spiritual reformation and the apocalyptic achievements he had earlier expected of them. Classical republicanism, which alone could save them, he believed to be beyond their understanding. Von Maltzahn’s study, unassuming in manner yet far-reaching in its implications, reveals the inner despair behind Milton’s bold propaganda of the Commonwealth period, and shows the poet confronting, at the crisis of the Puritan Revolution, the abridgement of hope. On that reading, 1649 takes its place beside the years around 1580, when Sir Philip Sidney lost faith in he Elizabethan regime, and those around 1680, when Algernon Sidney and John Locke exhorted their countrymen to sedition, as one of those occasions of despairing radicalism about which posterity, from 1688, would prefer not to know.

[*] Secker, 331 pp., £25, 27 April, 0 430 42513 0.